GCHQ Prism spying claims: Agency to report 'shortly'


Gordon Corera reports: "Tapping into the huge flows of internet data has become a top priority"

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Eavesdropping centre GCHQ will report to MPs within days over claims it secretly gathered intelligence from the world's largest internet companies.

The Guardian claims the UK's listening post accessed data on the internet activity of Britons obtained by a US spying programme called Prism.

Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee Committee (ISC) expects the report by Monday.

GCHQ said in a statement it operated to "a strict legal and policy framework".

US spies have been accused of tapping into servers of nine US internet giants including Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google in a giant anti-terror sweep. All deny giving government agents access to servers.

The Guardian says it has obtained documents showing that Britain's secret listening post had access to the Prism system, set up by America's National Security Agency (NSA), since at least June 2010.

The newspaper said the Prism programme appeared to allow the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to circumvent the formal legal process required to obtain personal material, such as emails, photographs and videos, from internet companies based outside the UK.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in London for a Hyde Park rally calling for action to end hunger, said he knew nothing about Prism, adding: "I don't know any specifics but if there's a court order for companies to do things it's typical that they're obeyed."

Washington visit

ISC chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind said the parliamentary committee would be "receiving a full report from GCHQ very shortly and will decide what further action needs to be taken as soon as it receives that information".

Douglas Alexander: "These latest reports over the last 48 hours have raised very real public concerns"

Committee members will discuss the claims with US security officials during a planned visit to Washington next week.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has urged the foreign secretary - the minister with responsibility for GCHQ - to make a statement to Parliament on the reports.

He told the BBC: "I am calling on William Hague, as the foreign secretary, to come to the dispatch box of the House of Commons on Monday to set out the government's position and explain how the government will work with the ISC to address the very real public concerns that have emerged."

BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera said intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the UK already had the ability to request information from internet and other companies through court orders and warrants.

"The question about Prism is whether it is simply an interface with the companies to then get hold of that information, or a kind of dragnet to gather vast amounts of information about everyone to sift through," our correspondent said.

He added: "Even more worryingly, was it a means of evading the legal oversight and legal restriction on how they operated?"

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said ministers were "going to have to say whether they knew about this and what they have and haven't authorised".

Shami Chakrabarti, Liberty: "[Spies] have to be accountable to Parliament and the law"

She told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme the big question was "have our agencies been circumventing the law by this nice little international exchange"?

She added: "The danger with this and other security policies is that governments say, 'well we'll obey our own laws that protect our citizens but we will then play fast and loose with the freedoms of others on the other side of the Atlantic or wherever'."

Former Labour MP Kim Howells, who chaired the ISC from 2008-2010, told Today he did not believe "for one minute" that intelligence service chiefs would be prepared to "venture into areas that are clearly illegal without, if you like, the permission of the government".

'Deeply concerning'

Conservative MP David Davis said the claims indicated the intelligence services had "much more information than they used to have… namely our most intimate traffic".

That could include "a love email sent to your wife or mistress or girlfriend", he added.

Start Quote

Privacy is effectively a 20th century concept like the steam engine”

End Quote Richard Aldrich International security professor

"That sort of thing's now available through a mechanism which doesn't go through the British courts and that's pretty serious."

US President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has defended the Prism monitoring programme, saying it was closely overseen by Congress and the courts and that his administration had struck "the right balance" between security and privacy.

Richard Aldrich, a professor of international security at the University of Warwick, said he expected Mr Cameron to say "rather as President Obama has said, that you can't have your cake and eat it - you can't have 100% privacy and 100% security".

"What they're not going to say is, actually, we're very rapidly accelerating to a point where we're going to be in a transparent society," he told Today.

"Privacy is effectively a 20th century concept like the steam engine."

A spokesman for the agency, based in Cheltenham, said: "Our work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee."

Meanwhile, the BBC has learned that Twitter was invited to join the Prism programme last year, but rejected the approach from US authorities.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    Whatever information has been gathered I am confident that it has been used to save thousands of lives. Ask us the general public and you will know that we would rather let the security services do what they feel is necessary and not what a few liberals say is good for us so that we can go about our normal lives. Has any of this gathered information affected us in a negative way!

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    Amazon, Google and the like do this all of the time (both are represented at the 'secretive' Bilderberg meeting)... Watch how the adverts on web sites tend to follow your browing habits. Even between unrelated sites.
    I'm far more concerned about that than any modern Government handles the data.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    I really cannot see what all the fuss is about. How do people expect events like the recent one in Woolwich to be prevented without stuff like this going on. I have nothing to hide, so the government organisations are welcome to monitor whatever they want of mine!

  • Comment number 172.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    Richard Jackson145.
    I would say that the first job of government is to do as the electorate wishes. A tad naive maybe,but if I want the state to to know what I get up to,I'll give them permission.
    I don't recall that in any manifesto.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    The only thing that worries me about this government privacy intrusion clap trap is that they will, on reading my emails/internet usage, realise I am actually a very boring person who lives such a dull existence and would probably knock on my door simply to tell me to get a life >.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Funny how nobody moaned when the Thatcher government, during the Miners strike, undertook the biggest peacetime phone tapping exercise ever? Even public phone boxes were tapped, miners or no miners!

    Demonize any group and you can justify anything.

    The big problem is the spooks are basically inept, incompetent and bungling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    74. Mike Higham: "Because of terrorism we can't have the luxury of national qualms and laws ... What we can have though is strict laws ... e.g. ... utterly inadmissable as evidence by law."

    We still had qualms during the IRA period when the British PM was blown up - your 2nd proposal is daft, it SHOULD be admissable in court but ONLY for terrorism offences, not school catchment area type cases.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    What alot of people fail to understand that the so called terrorists that are out to destroy are way of life are being assisted by our own Governments, because by imposing these measures is destroying our own way of life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    If you purchase from a USA company, the USA government have rights to access that information end of
    National laws do not protect ones privacy/information from other nations inteligence services

    I hate the term "loop holes" .
    They are NOT accidental "loop holes", they are cleverly/deviously designed into laws/policys to enable specific designed reality outcomes, legalised cheating/corruption

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    What is the point of all this monitoring when someone who is already well known to the authorities as a high probability threat still manages to do what they have planned? As was amply demonstrated recently on both sides of the Atlantic!

  • Comment number 164.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    If they read every e-mail, sms, or listened to every conversation that went over the air or through the internet it would be be to time consuming. They are looking for suspicious patterns of calls, if you are doing nothing suspicious then whats the worry, if this type of activity saves one life then let them get on with the job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    This is what the intelligence services do . Its their job to investigate danger to society and threats to it. I wonder how many terrorist attacks have been foiled and murders stopped because of these measures . As long as the law is applied and rules adheared to I have no problem with any of this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Always assume that whatever you put out online can be read by anyone, then you will have nothing to worry about. If you are stupid enough to go posting every detail about your life online, it is unlikely that you are bright enough to be a concern for spy agencies!
    Anyone posting details of their criminal activity online may as well take a trip to their local police station and hand themselves in!

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    We need to be clear on what is the wrong is.

    No reasonable person, in a troubled world, would claim an absolute right to absolute privacy, but would, where it's promised as here, claim an absolute right to reasonable privacy.

    It seems we've perhaps been denied even reasonable privacy, and Obama's relativising does not excuse that, as he seems to be aware.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    The chance of me being killed or even injured by any form of Terrorism are rather less than my chance of winning the lottery.

    And I don't even buy a ticket.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Just how much 'security' this effects is unknown, measured against a plethora of other uses. Secret monitoring, secret Bilderberg, unaccountable, unelected worthies - faceless people monitoring us. How can we take any political statements seriously? Do we really want to live like this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Keith Vaz seems to forget his previous position on internet privacy, where he seems to think that all kinds of surveillance are acceptable to prevent copyright infringement.

    To all politicians : GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY DATA!

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    A few years ago I was worried about this sort of potential invasion of privacy but sadly the world has changed and the freedoms we always held dear are now actively abused by fanatical nutters to attack us and destroy those freedoms. I'm now more than happy that all communications traffic of any sort is sifted and examined to help trace, track, catch and lock up such people.


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